So far, from the perspective of nearly eight months of parenting (does it count as sixteen if I have two babies?), it seems nothing divides us quite like the issue of breastmilk vs. formula feeding. Over and over again, on various parenting forums and e-mail lists to which I belong, the battle is waged, and over and over again I am bemused by the hostility. I think it’s sad that, as parents – and particularly as mothers – we feel so defensive about our choices and methods, especially when it comes to feeding our children. This is not to say I don’t understand why we’re so defensive – I certainly do, and as a breastfeeding, formula-supplementing mother of twins, I’m far from immune to those feelings.
Formula-feeding moms often feel bombarded by the “breast is best!” slogan, which is so ubiquitous that it even appears on cans of formula.
They We feel judged and found wanting, and they we are not crazy for feeling that way. When I started carting Robin and Wren around in public, I was regularly asked by strangers, “so, are you nursing them?” I didn’t tell those people I was supplementing with formula; I simply said “yes,” and let it go, though this kind of interrogation felt aggressive and intrusive.
But why do people feel entitled to ask the question at all? It’s valuable to have some perspective on the history of feeding babies in this country.* Formula was created in the late 1800s, something close to what we have now was developed in the 1950s (at which time over 50% of babies were already being fed on evaporated milk formulas), and by the 1970s, over 75% of babies were fed on commercial formula, due to a variety of social pressures and successful marketing by formula companies. So the push for breastfeeding, not unlike the push for natural birth, is relatively recent, and is no doubt sometimes pushed hard because of the ingrained institutions and corporate interests it’s pushing against.
On the other side, there is a lack of real support for breastfeeding. Women regularly have to fight for their right to feed their babies in public, or for safe and sanitary lactation facilities at work. A woman at my office was surprised I was nursing at all, and made a horrified face when she found out I was planning to nurse for at least two years, saying “That’s too long!” A pediatrician condescendingly told me that he knew it was important to me to breastfeed, but . . . and left the implication hanging. Despite what seems to formula-feeding moms to be an overwhelming pro-breastfeeding message, as of 2003 only 36.2% of mothers were still nursing at all at six months.
It’s so incredibly hard to feel secure in our own choices as parents, because god knows it seems everybody and their dog on the street feels they could parent our children better than we can. There is extensive research that says breastmilk is best, but that doesn’t mean that formula is inherently damaging or that using it makes you a bad parent. In a perfect world, everyone would have the physiology and the support necessary to create a healthy breastfeeding relationship. In reality, the alternative shouldn’t be chronic guilt and defensiveness.
*I specify this country because the breastmilk/formula debate takes on whole other dimensions in less industrialized places.